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My Top Five Novels

Plus A Well-Deserved Honorable Mention

By C. Rommial ButlerPublished 2 years ago 11 min read

My Top 5 novels:

1. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

2. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

3. The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

4. The Gunslinger by Stephen King

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore

Honorable Mention: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson


As art is a unique subjective experience for every respective person, no one can claim that their opinion on a work of art is the correct one, only that it is their opinion. My top five is more an indication of the massive influence these books had on me than any pretense to a scholarly critique. However, even if we can’t agree on what work of art is the best, we should be able to agree on the value of art to the individual. With that in mind, here are some novels that inspired me as a writer, and, more important, as a person.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a book about one man’s spiritual journey. More appropriately, it’s a book about a life lived. It’s also a love letter to the culture of the East, especially that of India, where Hesse’s parents frequently sojourned as Christian missionaries.

I have read all of Hesse’s work, and highly recommend it. But if you are only going to read one of his books, it should be this one. In Siddhartha, Hesse manages to say everything he tried to say in the vast bibliography that is the rest of his work in one slim volume that requires only a few hours to read. This may have something to do with the fact that all of Hesse’s other work is filtered through the lens of Western philosophy, psychology, religion, and history, and Siddhartha is really the only one to squarely see through the looking glass of Eastern thought, or at least Hesse’s attempt to grasp it from a Western perspective. Western thought tends to be diffuse where Eastern thought tends to be succinct.

I was surprised when reading through Hesse’s letters that he was not satisfied with the way the book turned out. He thought of it as a failure. Here is this masterpiece written by a man who thought it was trash. It does not make me any less hard on my own work, but no matter how much I may think I have failed, I am encouraged by the thought that my presumed failure could be a golden ray of light that animates the soul of some future reader, as Hesse’s Siddhartha most certainly did for me.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist is not only an Academy Award winning movie. Originally, it was a novel. Despite it sitting firmly at number two on my list of favorites, there is something which, over the years, has always disturbed me about the story—other than the horrific events of Regan’s possession.

The primary theme I culled from Blatty’s Exorcist is this: how far are we willing to go to protect innocence?

Was innocence protected? In the story we are supposed to believe that Regan has no memory of events, as if they never happened. But can that really be? Mustn’t they always be a part of her, even if only as a result of that gap in her memory?

Is it the oblivious audacity of the religious mind that spurs Blatty to use the demonic abuse of a little girl as a symbol to represent the machinations of evil while simultaneously divesting her of all humanity? The priests are saviors who cure all ills through their magnificent sacrifice—much as Jesus is supposed to be.

It is an eidolon of the Christian absolution principle, not only that one can be forgiven for all the wrong they have done, but more importantly that they can escape the pain of all the trauma that was inflicted upon them. But can they? Or are they only hiding its deleterious effect beneath a façade of happiness and grace?

I still think Blatty’s books (including Legion, sequel to The Exorcist) are literary masterpieces, but they represent a deeply flawed point of view which is not ultimately an adequate answer to existential despair. Nevertheless, there are beautiful, noble sentiments expressed therein which are worth preserving for the ages—as well as some genuinely disturbing horror.

The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

Conan the Barbarian is not about machismo, the hero story, or fast-paced action, though you’ll find plenty of all of the above throughout the Conan saga. There are passages in Robert Howard’s work that are transcendent. Literary descriptions of whirling swords like tornadoes demonstrate man not as machine but as force of nature, the power of the will not merely as cold calculation but as determination to die trying rather than to live dying.

This doesn’t mean Conan isn’t intelligent. He will spring upon you with brute force, yes, but he may also plot against you in countless ways which mere cunning could never anticipate. The Hour of the Dragon, Howard’s only novel length Conan story, distills everything about the character that makes him so fascinating, and almost certainly had a large role to play in the iconic depiction of Conan by Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Milius’ epic film adaptation.

I wouldn’t expect anyone else to give Robert Howard the time of day on a top five list of literary marvels, but for me, every time I read a Conan story, I’m enthralled from first to last word. Likely the Hyborian wanderer touches a primordial part of myself that yearns to die for something, rather than to live for nothing. In an age where masculinity is reduced at best to a fart joke, and at worst to a stereotypical insult, I won’t apologize or hide as a guilty pleasure the glory that is the Conan saga, and all that it represents about the best qualities of brave men: resourcefulness, courage, fearlessness, passion.

The Hour of the Dragon is Conan at his best, as a man who went from an orphaned boy to a slave, to a thief, to a pirate, to becoming a King, only to have it all taken, through the cunning of cowards, so he could exert himself to prove, in the end, that he can take it all back again.

And he did. Moral of the story: don’t fuck with Conan.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Dark Tower Series is the magnum opus that ties all of King’s work together. Even before King knew it himself, Roland of Gilead and his lifelong obsession with the Dark Tower pervaded everything that King wrote. The Gunslinger was the first book in the series, and King said he felt uneasy about it. That Roland presents less like a hero and more like a man determined to do whatever it takes to reach his goal is part of the fascination the character and the story exerts.

I was thirteen when I read this book for the first time. I read it from cover to cover in one sitting, awed that something like this even existed. The opening line is, in my opinion, the best in all fiction:

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

That is an immediate attention grabber. I wanted to know: who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger? Why are they traversing a desert? So much information in one line.

A book about a Spaghetti Western type gunslinger who hails from a guild reminiscent of Arthurian knights in an apocalyptic waste populated by mutants and magicians might seem too absurd for anyone to pull off, but King does it so well that he creates a cast of characters that hold the hearts of his most ardent fans, young and old, and I was no exception.

More than anything, the palaver the gunslinger has with the man in black after he finally catches up with him blew my thirteen-year-old mind. It was then that I knew that my destiny was to be a philosopher; that the deep, abstract thoughts which had plagued and even depressed me throughout my childhood could have meaning beyond the scope of passing idle moments.

So if anything I have ever written or said pissed you off, don’t blame me, blame Stephen King. (*Insert laughter here to indicate sarcasm*) Whether intended or no, King set me on this road deeper into my own inner space as surely as he set the gunslinger on the path to the man in black.

Watchmen by Alan Moore (Drawn by David Gibbons)

Yes, it’s a comic book but it is also the highest sort of literature. Alan Moore (and Neil Gaiman, one of my other all-time faves) did for comics what Homer did for epic poetry. Moore’s Watchmen is a masterpiece, and every time I read it, I find something new to appreciate. So many subtleties, intricate layers of meaning, and relatable characters, even when we must admit, with perhaps a slight tinge of shame, that we relate for all the wrong reasons.

Rorschach more than any other character represents both the noblest and ugliest aspects of our search for truth, and our belief in justice. He grows up misguided, misunderstood, and without the greatest understanding of hygiene, but his entire life is nevertheless hellbent on the protection of innocence. He tries to ally himself with what he believes to be the forces of good, only to find that it’s all far more complicated, and holding onto his ideals in the face of a self-serving world, he proves that he would rather perish than compromise.

As a philosopher, the existential crisis that faces Dr. Manhattan is well-known to me. That even someone who has the power of a god might question the meaning of his own existence is completely believable, and Moore touches on it in detail, sparing no expense to explore every vulnerable nook and cranny.

So it is with all the characters. In the end, we forgive them each their trespasses, because we recognize in them some part of ourselves, whether it be the yearning for eternity, salvation, love, happiness, justice, or oblivion. Their lots are our lot, ultimately, because despite their best efforts, there are no heroes, just beings becoming conscious of their place in an existence beyond their ken.

Honorable Mention:

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This book belongs in someone’s top five, so I can’t bear not to mention it here. The only reason it’s not in my top five is because I didn’t get around to reading it until I was forty years old and set in my ways. So it didn’t influence me as much as the others did.

Jackson is one of my favorite writers. I even enjoyed the collection of women’s magazine articles she published together in the book Life Among the Savages. This might come as a surprise coming from a fan of Conan, the gristly gunslinger, and the fatalistic Rorschach, but ultimately what attracts me to the authors I love is their timeless way with words, not their masculinity, femininity, politics, or other fly-by-night herd morality bullshit.

Many people have said that Jackson’s short story The Lottery is the best ever written, but I’ll have to put it at a close second to Ray Bradbury’s The Lake. However, as haunted house novels go, nothing else I’ve read comes remotely close to the raw, seeping power, and vague but somehow fulminating dread of The Haunting of Hill House. I said earlier that King wrote the best opening line in all fiction, but he would likely agree that Jackson wrote the best opening paragraph. And so, I will leave you with that sterling example of masterful prose, hoping that if you haven’t already read the novel, you will be inspired to do so… and if you have already read it, you’ll read it again—preferably a hard copy you bought at one of your local bookstores or borrowed from your local library.

Support them, keep them open. It’s not a lucrative business. Bookstores and libraries are treasure houses of nostalgia and a record of human love, loss, honor, and glory. Sure, we can find anything on the internet for free or next to free in a matter of seconds, but there’s something special about using our feet to wander out into the real world to find our way back into the realm of imagination.

It rends the veil between the two, as Shirley Jackson surely knew.

“No living organism can continue for long to exist safely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”


About the Creator

C. Rommial Butler

C. Rommial Butler is a writer, musician and philosopher from Indianapolis, IN. His works can be found online through multiple streaming services and booksellers.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Loryne Andawey12 months ago

    Excellent list and compelling thoughts. It makes me want to curl up with one of those books. I am especially interested in The Hour of the Dragon. I remember reading one Conan the Barbarian short story and was surprised to see a bit of sci-fi in there. It was a fun read.

  • I love Watchman. Definitely want to check out these others

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